Opera houses were central to American life from the end of the Civil War through the 1920’s. They were built mostly in the middle to late 1800’s and were multi-functional buildings, serving not only as performance venues but as community gathering spaces. The term “opera house” is indeed misleading and intentionally so. It provided an appearance of social and cultural respectability to avoid the stigma of “theaters”. The objections to “theaters” can be traced back to the Puritans in the colonial era. Religious leaders protested actors taking God’s name in vain and spectators spending money on the theater when it could go to churches, charities or economic development.
Theater audiences were perceived by the public as morally suspect, and the emphasis on morality was especially profound in the Midwestern towns where entertainment had to conform to the local standards. Many communities had bans on “theaters”, but “opera houses” were permitted. Opera houses multi-functional nature may have resulted from their physical position within the community. Many opera houses were located on the second floor of multipurpose buildings such as town halls, commercial buildings or fraternal organizations. Most opera houses were also prominently located on a central street or square within a town. Newspapers in the early 1900’s reveal that opera houses were a major part of a town’s social and political life.
In towns across America, opera houses provided one of the few physical spaces where the community could assemble for a wide range of events and activities. It was used for travelling theatrical productions of classical drama, melodrama, comedy musicals, vaudeville and even the occasional opera. The opera house was also used for concerts, religious events, agricultural lectures, high school commencement, boxing matches, and political rallies, benefits for local organizations, charity balls, and union meetings.
During the early decades of the twentieth century opera houses were retrofitted for showing silent movies. They were truly multipurpose facilities that were inextricably intertwined with the life of the community. In an era before radio, movies, television and malls, these buildings were essential and vital.
The BDRC would like to once again make the Victoria Opera House a focal point of our community. We wish to create a gathering place for the community to come together and enjoy music, movies, art and dance. We want to see civic organizations use the space, people hold weddings on stage, and and various groups use the facility for lectures. The Victoria will also be a focal point within the county as the last opera house, bringing with it visitors and economic development. We can’t wait to share the stage with you.
Information gathered from: Coal and Culture by William Condee and Beyond Hill and Hollow by Elizabeth Engelhardt. In addition images obtained from the Twin City News which can be viewed at the Baltimore Area Community Museum.